Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Issues Excellent Wireless Microphone Order — Perhaps NAB Will Rely Less on Scare Tactics and Celebrity Letters Now.

Time to clear up a little piece of unfinished business for which I and this humble blog can claim some modest responsibility. The FCC finally issued it’s long awaited Order on wireless microphones stemming from this blog post and the subsequent complaint/Petition for Rulemaking by the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (to which a special shout out to the folks at New America Wireless Future is due, given the fantastic amount of work they did on assembling evidence and helping draft the document).

As one can tell from this FCC press release describing the details, we pretty much got what we wanted — although not entirely and not in the way we expected. But, as I noted in this press statement in my role as Legal Director of Public Knowledge, we’re very happy with how things turned out. Briefly:
(a) all wireless mic users are now granted legal status, this is done pursuant to the FCC’s Part 15 rules for unlicensed rather than the “license by rule” that we suggested, but my only regret about that is I didn’t think of it when we filed.
(b) Everyone using wireless microphones needs to clear out of the 700 MHz band by Jun 12, 2010 — one year after the DTV transition and 15 months after the original date proposed by the FCC. Given how the Broadway people have been telling the FCC for months how they are off the 700 MHz band, this should not be too much of a hardship — especially for those who had no right to be there in the first place.
(c) The FCC will invest a boatload of its own resources, and gin up the FCC 2.0 machinery, to get the word out to folks and help consumers, churches, etc. handle the transition.
(d) The FCC will require that wireless microphones have signs and labels going forward to make sure that people understand the difference between licensed users and unlicensed users.

In addition, the FCC is having a further notice of proposed rulemaking that will:
1) Set the rules for the new Part 15 unlicensed wireless microphones.
2) Will examine whether to expand the class of Part 74 Subpart H eligible licensees to see if they should expand the class to give interference protection to some set of users — which would include who gets to be in the database of licensed services protected from operation of TV white spaces devices.

Yeah, that kicks the can down the road rather than saying flat out “anyone who was using a wireless microphone illegally is not entitled to protection against the TV white spaces devices, which went through the legal process and got approved.” But I can most definitely live with that. For one thing, I am confident that in an evidence-driven FCC which places consumer interests first, as demonstrated by this Order with its unprecedented investment of FCC resources for outreach (which we had not even dreamed of requesting except in the most general way of offering to help), will focus on the real question of whether or not there is interference and if so how to strike the appropriate balance between allowing new technologies and protecting existing users. Hopefully, this will inspire white spaces opponents to focus on engineering rather than trying to use scare tactics and celebrity “star power”.

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Big Low Power FM Win!

Back in 2007, the FCC issued an Order to try to address some of the problems impacting the low-power FM (LPFM) service. You can find out more about how amazing LPFM is, and why Congress needs to pass legislation to remove the artificial restrictions on how many LPFM stations we can have, here on the Prometheus Radio website.

Briefly, LPFMs are very small, very local non-commercial stations that operate at 100-watts or less. The FCC authorized the service in 2000, relaxing the “third adjacent channel” (A radio station must be 3 jumps away from the next radio station) rule to permit several thousand LPFM’s to operate without interfering with full power station. The NAB persuaded Congress to reverse this determination with the ironically named Radio Broadcaster Preservation Act of 2000. That act prohibited the FCC from relaxing or waiving the 3rd adjacent channel spacing requirement.

A few years ago, it became clear that the several hundred LPFMs permitted under the act were in danger of being crowded out by full power stations. Because of what appeared to be an unrelated decision to streamline the process by which full power FM stations can change their market designation. As a result, an LPFM could suddenly find itself impermissibly close to a full power station and need to shut down. Or it might start experiencing interference and get drowned out. The Commission therefore issued an Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which provided some relief by making it easier for LPFMs to relocate on the 2nd adjacent channel, thus avoiding Congress’ mandate that the FCC not reduce or waive the separation distance required on the 3rd adjacent channel. This is not nearly as silly as it sounds, as the process involves a fact-based determination on whether there is actually any interference to any full power as a result of the move. Given how interference works, it is very possible to fit a LPFM into space on the 2nd adjacent without causing interference. Spacing is based on averages to make processing applications easier. Actual engineering can determine how to place a low-power tower to avoid interference. Mind, this would be easier to do if Congress hadn’t absolutely prohibited any waiver of 3rd adjacent spacing. But they did. Happily, however, Congress did not prohibit any waiver of 2nd channel adjacent.

The NAB promptly appealed, arguing that the FCC had no authority to alter first,second or third adjacent as a result of the 2000 Act. This, in turn, stalled the conclusion of the Rulemaking, since why finish a rulemaking if you don’t even know whether or not you have authority?

Today, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the FCC’s decision. It rejected the NAB’s argument based on the plain language of the statute and found that the FCC had rationally justified its decision.

This is extremely good news for LPFM, and for those communities lucky enough to have them. As acting Chairman Copps noted in a statement issued today after the ruling, the FCC is now free to move quickly to finish the pending rulemaking. And, of course, Congress should move just as quickly to pass the Local Community Radio Act of 2009, so that hundreds of new communities can enjoy the diverse voices of low-power FM.

My former colleagues at MAP — especially Parul Desai who did the lion’s share of work on this issue — deserve a huge shout out for this win. I should also mention that it was not a Democratic FCC, but Kevin Martin who brought the 2007 Order to a vote — and then voted with the Democrats against both his fellow Republicans to get the needed 3 votes to clear the Commission.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Farewell to Commissioner Deborah Tate

As I observed back awhile ago when describing possible scenarios for the FCC, Commissioner Deborah Tate would need to depart when the 110th Congress expired and the 111th Congress convened at Noon on January 3, 2009. So, at the FCC’s pro forma meeting on December 30, Commissioner Tate stepped down and made her farewell address. Despite the rather tense atmosphere that often prevails on the 8th Floor of the FCC these day, her fellow Commissioners used most of the meeting time to say many nice things in appreciation of her tenure.

Allow me to add my own appreciation for Commissioner Tate’s service. This may come as a surprise to some, given that I disagreed with Tate a fair amount on most matters of substance. As others have noted, Tate voted along fairly standard Republican lines — generally shying away from regulation of “the market” despite a sincere concern about consumer welfare. (I should add that despite her much publicized comments about the dangers of Worlds of Warcraft, her support for strong digital right management and urging ISPs do more to block content potentially harmful to minors, Tate still generally followed a deregulatory line in simply urging industry to voluntarily do more and raising this in the context of voting against the Comcast/Bittorrent Order).

But let me tell a little story below which illustrates why Commissioner Tate deserves a respectful farewell even from staunch progressives such as myself.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The FCC Starts Its Wireless Microphone Investigation. Will Broadcasters Throw Broadway Under A Bus?

The FCC has just released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing the problem of wireless microphone operations in the 700 MHz Band and how it may screw up the introduction of new public safety and commercial wireless services. It basically proposes to adopt the recommendations we made to prohibit any future manufacture, sale or importation of wireless microphones that operate on the relevant 700 MHz frequencies, and prohibit operation on those bands after the DTV transition in February.

Along the way, the Commission asks for comment on our informal complaint and Petition for Rulemaking. Oh yes, and the NPRM also announced that the Enforcement Bureau has commenced an investigation into the wireless microphone manufacturers and their sales tactics.

I wish I could take all the credit for this one, but I really gotta hand it to Shure. I’m not saying that Shure’s insistence on dragging FCC engineers out to field testing so they could see first hand the blatant way in which Shure and others violate FCC rules, getting all their illegal customers to right into the FCC by the thousands and regale the FCC with tales of unauthorized use all over the country, and generally rubbing the FCC’s nose in the fact that Shure and the rest of the industry were engaged in widescale violation of the rules over and over and OVER again necessarily had anything to do with this. I will merely note that it is a happy coincidence of timing that the FCC commenced its investigation the Friday following the field testing, and immediately thereafter put our Petition out for comment attached to an item already in the works. No, it is no doubt my good looks and charm once again bending the FCC to my will.

To the extent the industry press has picked up on this, it has (surprise!) assigned credit for this to the great Google Overlords. Mind you, the same article also thinks that wireless microphones “produced little or no complaints because their signals have traditionally been programmed to avoid TV channels,” so this will tell you something about the accuracy of their analysis. (For those wondering, wireless microphones are dumb devices and the user selects the channel. It has no sensing equipment or database or any of the interference avoidance tech proposed for white space devices.)

I would also say that much as I would love to see this as a sign that the FCC supports opening up the white spaces for unlicensed use, I don’t. The NPRM is very carefully neutral on the subject, without any statements from Commissioners one way or another, and voted on circulation (meaning it is non-controversial). No, I think the Register pretty much got it right when they described this as “having sold off 700MHz to the highest bidders last year, the FCC now has a responsibility to clear the area before the new tenants move in.” The ball on white spaces, whether licensed, unlicensed, or not used at all is still very much up in the air.

Mind you, this certainly impacts the debate over the white spaces, and potentially removes a stumbling block by providing a road map on how to address the wireless microphone issue in a way that punishes spectrum scofflaws like Shure while protecting users like churches deceived by Shure’s sales tactics (and give parties an incentive to come to the table and do a deal over real interference concerns before the FCC bites their patooties off). And I think it is fair to say that we did help move the debate forward by providing the FCC with the pathway to making this possible. But I would say that all the Commissioners are still waiting for the field testing results to come in before making a final decision on the merits.

What is really critical here for the white spaces proceeding is that the broadcasters now have to make a very unpleasant choice. Do they embrace the radio pirates and forgive Shure for unleashing a million illegal transmitters all over “their” spectrum? Or do they stick to their usual guns and condemn any unauthorized use of the broadcast bands as unmitigated evil and warn that sanctioning a million new authorized users — with new General Wireless Microphone Users added every day — could utterly destroy broadcast television as we know it? Either way presents problems for broadcasters — with the added bonus of highlighting their blatant hypocrisy. Embracing the likes of Shure and unauthorized users undercuts all the hysteria broadcasters have so carefully cultivated, especially when they have always maintained that opening this spectrum to anyone new would destroy free over the air television. OTOH, siding with the FCC on enforcement against Shure and warning the FCC not to allow millions of transmitters operating at higher power and with fewer protections in the white spaces destroys their ability to use Broadway, the Grand Ole Opry, and all those megachurches as human shields.

Needless to say, the broadcasters have desperately sought to avoid saying anything on the subject and have tried to spin this to their advantage: “Gosh, moving wireless microphones off Channels 52-69 will sure make it harder to fit in all them white spaces devices,” claims David Donovan of the Association for Maximum Service Television, a trade association for TV broadcasters that has fought against any sharing of the white spaces.

The problem with this statement is that, according to the FCC, there are only 156 licensed wireless microphones authorized to operate on Channels 52-69. That’s not a heck of a lot of crowding. Unless, of course, MSTV plans to support our Petition for Rulemaking and support creation of a General Wireless Microphone Service licensed by rule and open to the general public.

Mind you I expect that MSTV, like the McCain campaign, will continue to get a free ride on this from an obsequious broadcast trade press and a tech press that cannot get past the Great Google Overlords. But they are going to have to file comments on this at some point. And I imagine that, as they come in to lobby against white spaces, the good folks at the Commission will want their opinion on this separate but related matter. I’ll certainly be interested in rading those Ex Partes.

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

It's Nice WhenThe FCC Listens — Sorta. Why I like The Proposed Resolution Of Comcast's Complaint Against Verizon But Why Some Of It Makes Me Uneasy.

Back in February, I blogged about Comcast’s complaint against Verizon for its “retention marketing” practices. That’s Verizon’s practice that, when they get a request from another carrier to terminate voice service and transfer the phone number of a customer who is switching from Verizon (a practice called “porting” the number), they make one last run at trying to persuade the customer to stay. At the time, I observed (as I have for well over a year now, since I first made this argument at the at the Federal Trade Commission’s 2007 workshop), that if we are going to rely on competition, then we cannot have rules that privilege one side over another. To cancel video service, you have to call the cable operator, who then gets a last chance to pitch you hard to stay and makes it as difficult as possible to terminate service. But to change telephone provider, the cable company can ask the telco provider and the telco provider isn’t allowed to try to keep the customer — but must wait to pitch the customer until after the customer has already switched. That’s crazy. It needs to be consistent, or it puts the telcos at a serious disadvantage against the cable cos.

Well, back in April, the Enforcement Bureau issued a recommended decision that adopts this same argument. (I’ve been a shade busy, or would have blogged on this earlier.) It strongly recommends that the Commission commence a notice of proposed rulemaking designed to harmonize the rules for switching video and voice. No surprise, as this also tracks a Verizon Petition for Declaratory Ruling — as noted by the Bureau in a footnote.

Needless to say, I wholeheartedly approve of such harmonization, having supported this approach for well over a year. So why does the recommendation make me uneasy?

Because of the legal reasoning around the facts of the instant complaint. The Bureau recommends a finding of no violation because number porting is not a Title II telecom service and cable providers offering voice over IP (VOIP) are not providing Title II services. Which means that the FCC can flit back and forth between Title I and Title II at will, depending on its policy needs of the moment. It also means that Title II telecommunications service has now been reduced to only the voice component of plain old telephone service. And even critical elements of POTS, like managing the phone number systems, no longer count as telecommunication services under Title II.

I’m even more queasy about this because it is probably right under the enormous deference shown to FCC definitional hair splitting thanks to the combination of the Brand X decision and the D.C. Circuit’s decision on CALEA in ACE v. FCC. Well, Scalia warned the Brand X majority, but they didn’t listen. And Michael Powell, by trying to put broadband services beyond the reach of FCC regulation, ended up enormously expanding the power of the FCC to regulate services on a whim.

More on what I’m talking about and what this means for the future (if adopted by the Commission) below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

D Block Rides Again! And the NPRM Is Already Released!

If I weren’t generally pleased with my quick flip through of the Commission’s Latest Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on D Block, I would declare it a true sign of the coming of the Apocalypse. Amidst the Mighty Earthquakes, the Great Whirlwinds, and other terrible signs and wonders, THE FCC RELEASED A NOTICE OF PROPOSED RULEMAKING ON THE SAME DAY AS THE OPEN MEETING!!!! Tremble all ye telecom whores Babylon, for the Day of Judgment is surely upon us!

I must also take the opportunity to give a huge THANK YOU to Commissioner Copps and whoever else got us a full 30 days for comment and 15 days for reply. Because given how impossible it will be to met these deadlines, I shudder to think what would have happened on an “accelerated” schedule.

A bit more below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Get Your Brackets Set for Tomorrow's Spectrum Sweet Sixteen!

In the FCC’s version of “April Madness,” the FCC will hold a meeting tomorrow (April 25). Among other items, the meeting will consider an Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the upcoming 700 MHz Auction.

Readers who plowed through my impossibly long field guide to the 700 MHz auction may recall that I highlighted a large number of issues and players that have clustered around this extremely important auction. Many critical filings and proposals (including, I am embarassed to admit, those of the public interest spectrum coalition) came in after the official deadline. (Hey! We’re busy! If someone wants to give Media Access Project a million dollars or two so we can stay on top of everything, email me!)

The combination of far reaching proposals and lack of time has prompted incumbents to challenge the FCC’s ability to grant these proposals because they do not comply with the “notice” requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The APA requires that an agency give everyone notice of what it plans to do and give interested parties a chance to comment. So the FCC will solve this problem by making some basic decisions now, and rolling over the remaining decisions to a Further Notice. Since we have a statutory deadline ticking away, parties will get only a month for comments and replies, and the FCC will make its final decisions at the end of May or early June. That way, they can still get to the auction by January 2008.

In other words, Wed. represents the first cut on how the FCC will proceed and the general direction it will go for the auction. Will it favor the incumbent push for large license blocks and open bidding? Will it allow the Frontline proposal to go forward? What about network neutrality?

Below I give my “spectrum bracket” for who gets to go from the Sweet Spectrum Sixteen to the Final Four. What’s likely to get cancelled, get renewed, or remains on “the bubble” for next season? Which proposals get “voted off the Island?” For my guesses, and my further entries for the next Stephen Colbert Meta-Free-For-All, see below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Responds With Fear and Trembling to My Scolding on Tardiness and Releases Two Additional Items

[Assume aspect of guiding light, hero, and all around object of devotion, Stephen Colbert]

Obviously stung by my scathing critique of the FCC’s failure to release the promised Notice of Inquiry on broadband industry practices, the FCC has now issued the promised NOI (technically, it issued a few hours before my post went live, but I know Stephen would want me to count it as a “kill”).

As an obvious additional attempt to curry my favor, the FCC has released two additional items that address long standing criticisms by myself and others, that the FCC’s annual “Broadband is Bustin’ Out All Over!” Report (aka the Section 706 Report on Deployment of Advanced Telecommunications Services to All Americans) dramaticly overstates the status of broadband competition in the country. In addition to the annual Notice of Inquiry, the FCC has also released this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on how to improve the data collection and reporting process.

[End Colbert channeling]
More details below . . .

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